September 13, 2018

Debunking Anti-Open Skies Treaty Propaganda, Digital Electro-Optical Sensor Edition

The Open Skies Treaty allows signatories to the treaty to overfly, with short notice, using agreed upon planes, pre-approved crews, joint flight crews, and take pictures with treaty-limited sensors. I use the term sensor rather than camera, because the treaty allows for pre-approved synthetic aperture radar, infra-red, and the visual spectrum to be observed and captured for posterity. Currenly there is no plane equipped with synthetic aperture radar, no synthetic aperture radar is certified for use under the treaty, and none are in the queue to be certified either.

It should also go without saying that there is a faction of the American government who wants to kill the Open Skies Treaty; a treaty proposed during the Cold War, and rebooted by then President of the United States George HW Bush in 1992. The treaty came into force in 2002, and there have been hundreds of flights conducted by representatives of 34 different nations..

In 2016 VAdm Haney (then Commander of the United States Strategic Command) and LtGen Stewart (Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) went before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and repeated misinformation they'd been provided, to the people of the committee, and by extension misled the people of the United States.

LtGen Stewart said on March 2nd 2016 :
"I've got to keep this really simple for me. This Open Skies discussion is think Polaroids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s versus 1080 high definition capability as we go to a digital environment. The things you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things that you can do with post-processing using digital techniques, allows Russia in my opinion to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities. So my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage. And yes, we both can use the same techniques but I have a great concern about the quality of the imagery, the quantity of the imagery, the ability to do post-processing of digital imagery, and what that allows them to see as foundational intelligence that I would love to have personally and I would love to deny the Russians having that capability." (YouTube video)
No Sir, let's not slander the Open Skies Treaty approved wet-film cameras by suggesting their resolution is in any way similar to imagery captured by hanging an old Polaroid camera out the window of a plane and snapping a picture. The United States and other countries use some of the highest-end wet-film framing cameras on the market, specifically made for surveying and aerial observation, which capture the treaty-imposed maximum resolution of 30cm, in the visual spectrum. "Post-processing" could mean anything, but it's possibly referring to the inclusion of location metadata and the ability for the Russians to use digital images like anyone would with the inherent advantages of a digital medium. You can tile them easier than you could with wet-film, overlay other map data, and you can share them across departments much easier than with wet-film, which requires physical access to the prints, among other practical hurdles that can be solved by any digital product. None of that constitutes a violation of the treaty, or even the spirit of the treaty; Russia implemented their digital-electro optical sensor faster.

In 2016, specifically because of the misleading statements being made by American officials, I interviewed the Canadian Lieutenant colonel who is responsible for the Arms Control and Verification team that conducts Canadian Open Skies Treaty flights over Russia, facilitates Russian flights over Canada, and arranges logistical support for Russian transit flights to the United States. It was abundantly clear from our discussion that there was no problem with the Russian digital electro-optical sensor;
"30cm resolution for digital, 30cm for wet film ... 30cm is 30cm." -LCol Steeve Veillette, RCAF SJS ACV
While the Open Skies Treaty was thought of in the 1950s, signed in the 1990s, and in place since 2002, technology has come a long way. Thankfully the authors of the treaty future-proofed it somewhat, having the forsight to include provisions for visual spectrum cameras, Infra-Red, and Synthetic Aperture Radar, and still leave the list open ended, allowing for future sensors to be proposed and wrapped in. Over ten years ago the United States was leading the charge to digitize the Open Skies process, but Russia completed engineering, testing, and certification of their digital electro-optical sensor first. In order to certify the camera, 22 nations needed to approve the design was to the specifications laid out in the treaty, such as the camera was tamper proof, as well as meeting treaty-mandated maximum resolution provisions in the treaty. This means that the Russian camera, on the Russian Open Skies Treaty designated plane, conforms to all resolution limits and restrictions in the treaty. It provides advantages that are inherent in digital (no processing chemicals, can make duplicates of the images with two clicks of a mouse, etc..) but no quality difference in the imagery. That is the ruling of the governing body of the treaty, the OSCC, of which the United States has a seat.

American political opponents to the Open Skies Treaty call the Russian switch from wet-film to digital an upgrade, and claim it gives the Russians an unacceptable advantage over the United States of America, suggesting the quality of the images, and resulting intelligence gained from them, is superior to the status quo. This complaint is spurious at best, since the United States is actively developing their own digital electro-optical sensor that will be extremely similar in capabilities, identical in fact, to the Russian sensor they're crying foul about now. Further, the digital electro-optical sensor (ahem, camera) has been certified by the OSCC to be compliant to all the same restrictions as the wet-film camera.

As for the accusations that Russia would gain "foundational intelligence" with the digital electro-optical sensor; all of the countries who are signatory to the Open Skies Treaty gain intelligence from observation flights. Suggesting anything else is rather dishonest.

The OC-135 planes that are used by the USAF to conduct observation flights are falling appart, and I'm not sure how they haven't been grounded for flight safety issues yet. Reports of the OC-135 being incapable of landing at all Russian airstrips that are allowed in the Open Skies Treaty for refuelling are true, therefore their range is limited to where they can fly to from designated airports. A different plane capable of landing on less well maintained airstrips would benefit the United States. For example, in order to fly observation missions in one area of Russia's North, refuelling in Tiksi Airfield is required. Unfortunately, due to frost heaves and other maintenance issues, the OC-135 is unable to land on the paved, but rough, runway. This is where partners are useful to the United States; USAF members tagged along on a Canadian Open Skies Treaty flight to Tiksi July 4th to 9th 2016. The adept RCAF crew and rough and tumble CC-130J Hercules can land on gravel, and had no issue with the rough runway. What I believe should be publicized to a much greater degree is the US isn't in this treaty alone, it has 32 allies that fly missions over Russia who are required to share their imagery with anyone who asks. It's extremely infrequent that I see any mention in the American press that the treaty is multilateral, and not like the START or other treaties that only have Russian and the United States at the table. Maybe it's unfamiliar territory, to discuss a 34-way treaty where everyone has an equal say, but I do think the American news media is glossing over the multinational aspect of the Open Skies Treaty.

Of the two outstanding items characterized as violations by the Russian Federation by the United States State Department Arms Control and Verification department, which are documented in their yearly report (which is not part of their Open Skies Treaty responsibilities, but they publish one yearly all the same) one has to to with the border region near Georgia, and the other to do with Kaliningrad.

In April of 2012 Georgia announced to the OSCC that it would no longer cooperate with Russia in the Open Skies Treaty due to their involvement in the Georgian "breakaway" republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are not recognized as separate countries by Georgia or the United States, but at the time the OSCC didn't really address the issue, and the State Department didn't mention in their yearly compliance report that Georgia was in violation of the treaty, because nothing of any importance had been blocked or violated yet.  Fast forward to 2017; Russia requested, in the appropriate OSCC meeting at the end of the year when they define the next years quotas regarding who will fly over who under the treaty, that they fly over Georgia. Georgia refused, as they said they would in 2012, which is a violation of the Open Skies Treaty. Since the OSCC requires unanimous consent regarding the quotas of flights to be flown for 2018, and Georgia refuses to do so, the entire treaty is currently on hold, and no countries are able to overfly anyone.
(Georgia background:

Because Russia considers South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent countries, confirming to the Open Skies Treaty, are prohibiting flight plans within 10km of the border with either, since they are not signatories to the Open Skies Treaty. Georgia and the United States consider them to still be part of Georgia, therefore no limit is required in their eyes. This border dispute is far outside the scope of the Open Skies Treaty, and the slice of land that cannot be overflown is so small, while very significant to Georgia, I cannot see any reason for this to impact the overall treaty. If the US really wants to see something in that strip, they can with their national technical means already; claiming there is something of interest in that 10km slice is disingenuous. Opponents flaunt this a slippery slope, and that Russia must return to *full* compliance of the treaty in the eyes of the US, but I don't see how that's possible with the complicated South Ossetia and Abkhazia issue. It would make sense to me that American opponents of the treaty know it's impossible for Russia to return to compliance with this outstanding unrelated issue, and are using it as proof that Russia is unwilling to cooperate, and a reason for the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

The second outstanding violation the United States accuses Russia of is limiting the flight distance over Kaliningrad to 500km, which the US says is a violation of the agreement, and Russia says they are doing within the agreement for flight safety.
"Some of our partners, who have the right to make observation flights at a maximum distance of 5,500 kilometres, used this right over the Kaliningrad Region, flying over it far and wide, which created problems in the limited airspace of the region and hindered the operation of Khrabrovo International Airport. We did not manage to convince our partners to show a reasonable degree of restraint. This is why we had to minimise spending by restricting the maximum flight distance over the Kaliningrad Region to 500 kilometres. This is not contrary to the OST or the signatories’ subsequent decisions. I would like to point out that this has not changed the total flight distance of 5,500 km and hence coverage of Russia’s territory. The flight range of 500 km over the Kaliningrad Region is sufficient for observing any part of the region, even the most distant areas, during observation flights. In other words, this restriction has not affected observation effectiveness."
Significantly, I had been told this same story, off the record, by American officials, so I can confirm the story from two sources, one of which is public.
Kaliningrad is roughly the same size as Connecticut. Under the treaty an observation flight can take pictures over 5,500km of Russia; but the intent is to fly across Russia, not stay within one spot and photograph every bush and every tree in a single area. Technically, there is nothing to say the 5,500km can't be spent in one area, but in practical terms this wreaks havoc on commercial airline operation, especially over Kaliningrad. Flying a flight path exclusively over Kaliningrad (think of trying to burn thousands of miles over CT zig-zagging a lawnmower pattern, all day) isn't exactly within the spirit of the agreement, but was technically legal - which is why Russia imposed a unilateral 500km limit after not receiving support at the OSCC for their objections.

Opponents of the treaty use the term "restriction" when referring to Russia's two limits imposed on flights in Russia, but the English word restriction is ambiguous enough to mean different things to different people. Restriction in this case means being allowed to overfly Kaliningrad with strings attached, not blocking all flights over the Kaliningrad enclave, as it has been portrayed in the media. Likewise, the 10km wide strip of land near Georgia that depending who you ask is, or isn't, subject to the Open Skies Treaty is being blocked, but justly in Russia's view.  These are diplomatic issues that are best handled by the State Department who have brought the number of treaty violations down to only two, whereas years ago they had at least five - all others have been solved through diplomatic means.

Please let me know if I've missed anything!

Suggested reading:

   by George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and Christopher Stubbs
   NY Times Op-Ed, 2012-03-25

"Intelligence and Security Implications of the Treaty on Open Skies, report of the Select Committee on Intelligence"
  United States Senate, 1993-04-19

US Space-Based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
  Maj Brian Crothers, USAF; Maj Jeff Lanphear, USAF; Maj Brian Garino, USAF;
  Maj Paul P. Konyha III, USAF; and Maj Edward P. Byrne, USAF

Georgia Ceases Open Skies Treaty Vis-à-Vis Russia
  Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 2012-04-06

CRS Insight: The #OpenSkiesTreaty: Issues in the Current Debate2017-08-10 #IN10502

United States Department of State Arms Control and Verification compliance report April 2018


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